When I was a kid, I used to imagine daily life in the Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War as a black and white film full of pale people who could never experience joy because they were so worried about being spied on by the secret police. Edward Snowden hadn't been born yet, so the idea that a government would actually eavesdrop on its citizens seemed like the kind of grotesque nightmare only a monstrous communist dictatorship would dream up. We, the privileged and perpetually happy citizens of the United States, could only pray that this dreary, invisible world was never visited upon our shores and allowed to destroy all our TV shows, candy bars, and cute outfits.
The Cold War lasted 40 years and for most of that time, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was visible only through a veil of government-controlled propaganda and secrecy. Then the Berlin Wall came down, followed by the process of re-unification. As the "new Germany" formed, it decided to excise those disturbing images of the GDR from its history. East German street names and consumer products were all changed; iconic buildings, monuments, and art of the east all disposed of.
But when a society vanishes, what happens to everybody's stuff?
What did the former secret police do with their terrifying James Bondian briefcases full of spy gear after they resumed their identities as unemployed German guys with wives pleading for more closet space? What did the border guards from Checkpoint Charlie do with their uniforms, their weapons, and their training manuals?
As it turns out, all the aforementioned and more live on in Los Angeles, thanks to Dr. Justinian Jampol, a historian who created The Wende Museum.
In 2002, Jampol was a 25-year-old graduate student at Oxford, working on his master's degree in Russian and East European studies. While studying in Berlin, he realized that the official East German archive didn't contain the kind of source material he needed to answer his questions about life in the now-defunct GDR.
When a regime falls, at first everyone wants to get rid of everything. A whole culture vanishes because it is not yet recognized as historical, just old. - Justinian Jampol
"I was fascinated by the way people talked about the Eastern Bloc as so discomforting. It seemed like a big hole that no one was looking at," he recalls, describing how it felt to watch a culture being dismantled on the streets of Berlin in real time.
"You could see fragments in the midst of being destroyed: murals being painted over, everything being taken down and thrown away," he told me. "When a regime falls, at first everyone wants to get rid of everything. It happens so fast that most things are abandoned. A whole culture vanishes because it is not yet recognized as historical, just old. Everything was being seen in light of a narrative that they were forming about the GDR as oppressive and bad. The only things that were kept were those deemed 'culturally significant.' But by whose definition?"
That was when Jampol had an epiphany that changed the direction of his research. "I realized that to be the historian I wanted to be, I needed to get out of the archive and go find my own stuff."
The first task: figuring out where the most fascinating GDR relics were stashed. Following up on a series of tips, Jampol found himself in people's basements, attics, flea-markets, and fall-out shelters. He searched through what remained of once bustling population centers now turned into ghost towns full of abandoned buildings. There, he discovered "the things people were traumatized by, the things they loved and threw away."
"History is saved by the crazy people, the people in the margins." he says, "We are the place these things can exist while the battle is being waged."
Clip from Collecting Fragments
In a short documentary the museum made called Collecting Fragments, you can see glimpses of how The Wende was formed. One scene shows Jampol standing in a private garage, outside of Juterborg, Germany, in an area once designated "a secret city." A former employee of The Ministry for State Security shows him through a personal collection he has amassed of 7,000 mortars. "A history of Russian artillery," the former policeman calls it. Jampol calls it "the largest mortar collection in the world."
Another scene shows him out hiking in the German countryside with a group, on their way to examine the contents of an abandoned fall-out shelter.
Some of the most fascinating items now on display at The Wende were donated by former citizens of The GDR who feared their collections would be politicized if they donated them to a European institution.
"Especially the stuff that comes from some of the perpetrators—the East German Border guards, the Stasi [the secret police]," says Jampol. "If they gave their stuff to a German institution, they would be outed."
As our tour through The Wende continued, I found myself riveted by an exhibit called "Facing the Wall," which consisted of hundreds of pairs of black and white photos of nearly-identical looking people. It turned out to be part of a testing kit used to teach East German border guards how to spot someone not using their own passport.
"They could tell fairly objectively whether your passport was real using other equipment," Jampol explained, "but how could they be sure it was really you? Each card has two faces on it and you have to be able to answer, 'Are they the same person, true or false?'"
Of the 200 photos, only nine are actually the same person. I examined each pair as carefully as I could and still guessed wrong almost every time.
The materials here aren't just fascinating, but extremely rare.
"We have the only known text on how to become a border guard," Jampol tells me. Within the text is a "taxonomy of facial features" to help the guards in training increase their observational skills. We were standing in front of a display table that contains elaborate eye, nose, and mustache comparison charts designed to help a new guard prepare to catch citizens with fake passports before they could successfully escape to the west. Beside the text is a completed workbook along with a few pages of handwritten notes made by the former guard who donated them.
By the time my guided tour through a selection of the 100,000-plus items presently archived at The Wende Museum concluded, some of my grimmest illusions about the quality of human life "behind the iron curtain" were shattered—or, at least, expanded. Because the goal of The Wende Museum is to present all the recovered details of this disappeared world, both good and bad, it came as a pleasant surprise that life there wasn't all a living hell.
For instance, in the GDR, unemployment and homelessness were almost nonexistent. There were state-sponsored programs to care for old people and an active commitment to gender equality. The GDR's 10-mark note featured the image of Clara Zetkin, the German feminist who started International Women's Day.
For all its obvious limitations on freedom, the GDR also sponsored art, music, a theater company for Bertolt Brecht, and a number of surprisingly sophisticated films. Then there were the East German Westerns, which distinguished themselves by having plots in which the Indians always won. And its hard not to have at least a little sympathy for a government, no matter how repressive, that tried in vain to promote a state sponsored dance with the slogan "Do the Lipsi!"
Part of Jampol's PhD thesis involved deciphering the kind of underground subcultures that no outsider would be able to spot without a playbook. "Like, you might see a guy on the street wearing an East German 'Swords into Ploughshares Symbol,' and conclude that he's just another pawn of the state. But in the late 70s, the head of the GDR Dissident group, Robert Havemann, claimed the same symbol as their official symbol, just to fuck with The Stasi," he tells me. "They knew no one would be able to tell if a person was wearing the symbol in a negative or positive way. So they had to ask everyone they saw, 'Are you wearing it in support or opposition?' If it seemed suspicious, they would rip it off."
"And of course," Jampol adds, "eventually having a ripped off badge became so prestigious that East German punks started making marks on their clothes that looked like the Stasi had ripped a badge off of them."
Ultimately what emerges from a trip to The Wende, thanks to Jampol's tireless collecting, is a picture of a distinctive East German culture that some of its survivors still miss to this day, even if they are glad that the state itself is gone. Among old timers, there remains a feeling that the reunification happened so quickly they were deprived of the chance to negotiate what should be kept and what should be discarded and therefore lost the opportunity to try and form a new improved and hopefully better GDR.
"History is complicated because people are complicated," says Jampol. "Were they repressed? Of course. But that makes the creative material even more impressive because the human spirit always finds a way to get through the cracks, right? If it wasn't for us, it would all disappear."
On any given visit to The Wende Museum you might run in to some or all of the following: a room full of Stasi spying equipment; a display made of signs that used to be up at Checkpoint Charlie; an assortment of East German household products; a musical instrument called the Shalmei that was closely associated with the German labor movement; a woman digitizing one of the 6,000 health, hygiene, and educational films made by the GDR. The day I was there, we watched the deadly earnest GDR produced "A Visit to the Laundromat," designed to show citizens, in mind-numbing detail, how they were expected to prepare their clothing for drop off at their nearest state-sponsored laundry facility.
The day after my visit, Jampol headed back to Berlin to continue his race against time, before the window of opportunity for finding relics from The Cold War closes for good.
"We were tipped off about a collection that a woman has about an hour and a half outside Berlin filled with 100 years of clothing and fashion from the Imperial time to Weimar to Third Reich to the GDR," he tells me. "The way we collect speaks to the ethos of the museum. We don't wait on pins and needles for the next Christie's auction."
At the same time, he is also eagerly amassing art and cultural ephemera from Hungary. "The current right wing regime sees everything that happened between 1945 and 1989 as 'inauthentic' and 'tainted,'" he explains, "so they're getting rid of all this important work. It's all just flowing out of the country." And fortunately for us all, flowing right into The Wende Museum.
The future of The Wende looks bright. Currently located in the back of an office park in Culver City, they are only open to the public on Fridays or by appointment. But by the end of next year, they will move into a newly renovated 15,000-foot space that was once a National Guard Armory. They have also signed a multi-year deal with The Getty Museum to work on a book and contribute to exhibitions.
"So the stuff we collect goes from a situation where people are getting rid of it—where it's basically considered garbage—to going into the Getty. It's just so weird," Jampol says, smiling.
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